Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Han Han's blog post on censorship and the Southern Weekly affaire

A few days ago an almost unprecedented event took place in China: a demonstration in favour of freedom of the press. Hundreds of people gathered in Guangzhou in front of the headquarters of the Southern Weekly newspaper, to express support for its struggle against censorship.

Southern Weekly is well known to be China’s most open and independent newspaper, and it has often been on the receiving end of government pressure in the past. Last week, the newspaper’s employees wrote an open letter to the provincial propaganda department of Guangdong, demanding the resignation of one of its highest ranking officials. They accuse him of surreptitiously revising one of the newspaper’s editorials, and having it published without their consent. (Note that the “propaganda department” is called 宣传 or xuānchuánbù in Chinese. The word xuānchuán, although it can mean propaganda, doesn’t have the negative ring of the English term. It simply means disseminating information).

The editorial was originally entitled “China’s dream: the dream of constitutionalism”, and urged the government to respect the country’s constitution of 1982. After its revision, the title was changed to “We are closer than even before to our dreams”. The editorial’s original position had been altered to make it appear heavily pro-government, and the revised edition also contained various factual and typographical errors.

The newspaper's staff are now on strike, and the situation has quickly snowballed, with various intellectuals coming out in support of Southern Weekly all over China. Chinese internet sites have blocked related search-terms, and the Chinese media is of course mostly keeping quiet on the issue. The English edition of Global Times, which always tends to tackle sensitive topics from a pro-government angle, has come out with an editorial entitled “Freedom of the Press must serve society”. Characteristically, while remaining vague and avoiding the actual issue, it basically takes the line that freedom of the press “cannot go too far” and has to proceed at the same speed as “social transformation”.

The Chinese edition of the Global Times, on the other hand, has produced another editorial in which it claims that the entire story of the Southern Weekly article being altered is a fabrication, and defends the current censorship arrangements. Other newspapers have been forced to republish this editorial, although many have attempted to resist the order, and the Beijing newspaper Xinjing Bao’s publisher resigned in protest.

The anti-censorship demonstration in Guangzhou was confronted by a small group of counter-demonstrators who called the newspaper “a tool of US imperialism” and waved Chinese flags and banners of Chairman Mao. From the only photo I can find of them, they look like a rag-tag band of people who might well have been paid by the local authorities to stage their “counter-demonstration”.    

 What this whole story tells us, I think, is that in the world of Chinese media some people are fed up with the current level of censorship, and they are not afraid to say so out loud.

China’s most famous blogger, Hán Hán (韩寒), published a post on the issue on his Weibo page two days ago. You can find my translation below. The title is a reference to a well-known Southern Weekly headline, “there is always a power which makes us weep”. I was a bit unsure of the meaning in a few places, but I did my best to produce an accurate translation.

There is Always a Power.

Since my two Weibo posts have both been deleted, what am I to write?

When I was still a teenager, the Southern Weekly influenced me deeply, and it accompanied me throughout my youth. Later on I wrote a lot of articles, I also edited a magazine, and I came to really understand the meaning of “there is always a power which makes us weep”, and I understood that there is also a power which leaves us unsure of what to do. That power interferes with what you say, what you write, and what you do. Writers and reporters are all constrained by this power, and we can’t even see who holds it, let alone communicate with them, until you understand that what it does is cover you mouth and tell everyone you are happy.

You can have so-called freedoms, but only because they will punish you for it. No matter whether you’re engaged in literature, news or cinema, you have to expend a lot of energy in getting their authorization. If you want to discuss the regulations, they don’t even tell you clearly what the regulations are, so that every person is breaking the “regulations” at least to some extent. If you want to conform with their rules, you have to become them. We are always being careful of ourselves and each other, being fearful, and trying to find ways around it. They tear your clothes, throttle your throat, and at the same time they also convey the message that if you run faster or sing better, you are gaining glory for them in the world.  

We hardly have any world-class authors, film-directors, newspapers, magazines, films…. Of course, you could say that it is us, the professionals in these fields, who aren’t up to standard and are trying to shift responsibility; you could say that what is national is also global; you could ask why we have to go and cater to other people’s tastes; you could say Iran is much stricter than us, and also produces XXX; you could even say that our pandas are loved by children worldwide. Perhaps I’m not good enough, but at least I don’t accept that there are people who can wantonly delete me, change me and bind me. So this expression of public support isn’t just for the sake of a newspaper I love and of journalists who deserve respect, but its also for the sake of the other media and journalists who’ve found themselves in even worse circumstances with even more miserable results, and of course it is also for myself.

As a reader, the Southern Weekly has given me a lot. It empowers the powerless, and helps those less fortunate to move forwards, so now that it is itself powerless and unfortunate, let’s try and give it a bit of power, and accompany it as it continues moving ahead.

The post has not been deleted by Weibo, perhaps because of Han Han's popularity, and it has already received thousands of comments. When such a popular figure comes out so strongly against censorship on China's most popular blog, which has an audience of millions, it makes you think.

(In the picture, celebrity blogger Han Han)

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